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Fountain Blues Fest: California Honeydrops

In Music
GOLDEN STATE PLAYERS: The California Honeydrops headline this year’s Fountain Blues Festival in Plaza de Cesar Chavez in San Jose.

GOLDEN STATE PLAYERS: The California Honeydrops headline this year’s Fountain Blues Festival in Plaza de Cesar Chavez in San Jose.

Of all the incredible blues performances Dan Ross has seen in his time, there is one he will never forget. “It was just fantastic when John Lee Hooker came out and basically rocked 3,000 people with his boot,” Ross says, recalling one of the two times the blues legend performed at the Fountain Blues Festival in San Jose.

It was the mid-’80s, and Ross was a 19-year-old San Jose State University student intent on helping build a blues festival for his alma mater. He couldn’t possibly have known back then that the Fountain Blues Festival would go on to become one of San Jose’s best known music festivals.

Not even Ted Gehrke, who was serving as faculty advisor to Ross and the rest of SJSU’s Associated Students—the student-run organization that pushed to start the festival—realized what they had set in motion. “Never in [his] wildest dreams” did Gehrke think the Fountain Blues Festival would grow like it has.

The Associated Students started the Fountain Blues Festival in 1981. According to Gehrke, the students chose to focus on blues because of its mass appeal and because of budget constraints: hiring blues musicians was cheaper than pop or rock artists.

For the first 25 years, even though the festival was free, Gehrke, Ross and others still managed to book top talent—like Hooker, Buddy Guy and Bo Diddley.

The festival did suffer some slow years. Heavy rain forced organizers to reschedule the festival in 1994 and the whole show was nearly halted in 1997 because of financial troubles. However, just like the music it presents, the festival proved tough to kill.

Organizers started charging festival goers in 2005. That same year, they booked Etta James, who undoubtedly helped ticket sales. That year’s Fountain Blues Festival sold out fast.

Today, the fest is produced by the non-profit Fountain Blues Foundation. The foundation is composed of 14 volunteer board members, with Gehrke as president and some of the same 1981 individuals who were a part of the Associated Students team that organized the first Fountain Blues Festival, including Ross. Coming into its 35th year, organizers expect to draw between 3,000 and 5,000 people from all over the South Bay and beyond.

Looking into the future, Fountain Blues Foundation member Amy Anderson says the goal of the festival remains the same as always—but with a twist.

The mission of the Fountain Blues Festival has always been to preserve the history of blues. However, Anderson says, the foundation is currently looking at ways of drawing new listeners into the fold, which means including a variety of artists and bands with different backgrounds—not just the blues.

“We’re trying to diversify the music to broaden the audience,” Anderson says, noting that younger listeners might not even realize how much the popular music they have grown up listening to is influenced by the blues.

As Ross puts it: “It’s a blues festival, but it’s really an American music festival.”

This year’s headliners are The California Honeydrops. Known for their energetic and engaging performances, The California Honeydrops play a mixture of R&B, funk, Delta blues and Southern soul. Their impressive repertoire of performances includes festivals like Outside Lands, Monterey Jazz and High Sierra. 

Returning to the festival this year is Otis Taylor. Known for songs “Nasty Letter” and his version of “Hey Joe,” Taylor has played the Fountain Blues Festival twice before—in 2004 and 2010—and Anderson describes him as “Jimi Hendrix on the banjo.” Taylor’s somber lyrics and stories capture the purest and most authentic form of the blues.

Opening the event is the Oakland Interfaith Gospel Choir. The award-winning choir was founded in 1986 at a gospel music workshop at Living Jazz’s Jazz Camp West. 

The festival still keeps close ties to SJSU by including a side stage where students from SJSU and area high schools showcase performances.

Fountain Blues Festival
Jun 25, 11am, $20-$75
Plaza de Cesar Chavez, San Jose

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